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Newt Gingrich, pushing prejudice at Ground Zero

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Newt Gingrich, his doctorate notwithstanding, has offered us an illogical and ahistorical context to the ugly dispute about building an Islamic cultural center and mosque near Manhattan's Ground Zero. For a while, I thought that Sarah Palin and others would be the only ones to reap the political benefit of exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment, but Gingrich was not to be denied. With a preposterous solemnity, he expounded the schoolyard doctrine of tit for tat.

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Gingrich noted that there "are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." True enough. However, it is not the government of Saudi Arabia that seeks to open a mosque in Lower Manhattan, but a private group. In addition, and just for the record, Saudi Arabia does not represent all of Islam and, also just for the record, the al-Qaeda terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, would gladly have added the vast Saudi royal family to the list of victims. In recompense, the Saudis would just as gladly apply some dull swords to the necks of al-Qaeda's leaders. It is the way of the desert, or something like that.

I would also note that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Applying Gingrichian logic, it follows that no Muslim women should be allowed to drive in the United States and its possessions and territories -- or, for that matter, use a BlackBerry, since the United Arab Emirates is about to block some of its key functions. I'm sure Gingrich would agree.

Gingrich's statement, written as an op-ed essay, employs two of his favorite words. The first is "they," as in, "And they lecture us about tolerance." Indeed they do -- and what nerve. After all, "they" are themselves intolerant, which not only means that we should be too but also raises the question of who "they" are. A fair parsing of his essay reveals almost nothing about the identities of this nefarious "they." It seems to be the people who support the mosque as well as Muslims everywhere, a large and amorphous group whose commonality is the enmity of Gingrich himself. In reality, this is the demagogic they, the "they" that permits wild generalizations, as long as it is of minority groups lacking political power and thus safely demonized.

Gingrich's other favorite word is "elites." In his role as Newt the Lionhearted, he would lead a crusade against "double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission." Yea, verily, yea. And who would succumb to such pressure? "Sadly," it is "our elites" -- "the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could." Thank God that Gingrich, with his several degrees, multiple marriages, ample fame and commensurate income, is somehow not one of the elites and can, as soon as he mounts up and gets into makeup, save us by, would you believe, possibly running for president.

Nineteen so-called "jihadists" crashed four airplanes that day in 2001. This is 19 out of about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, an infinitesimally tiny percentage indeed. Nonetheless, this math is lost on the likes of, say, Rick Lazio, who is running for New York governor and, probably as a consequence, is a vociferous anti-mosqueteer. He of all people should know that it is unfair to judge an entire people by the criminal behavior of a few: capiche?

The irony is that the proposed Cordoba House Islamic center -- Cordoba being the Spanish city that, under the Moors, was renowned for its (relative) religious tolerance -- was intended to encourage interfaith dialogue. Unfortunately, the site is a mere two blocks from Ground Zero and, as some people insist, this could cause discomfort to those who lost loved ones there. This is the argument made by the Anti-Defamation League, which has surprisingly taken the wrong side in this debate. Of course, people are entitled to their feelings, and feelings regarding Sept. 11 are still raw. But it is not all of Islam that took down the Twin Towers. To bar the mosque on those grounds is to accede to prejudice, no matter how painfully earned.

This mosque and Islamic center were approved by the local neighborhood advisory board and have the backing of the mayor. To an alarming extent, the opponents are mostly Republican politicians -- Palin, Lazio, Gingrich and even congressional candidates in other states. They pretend to have the courage of their convictions, but the truth is otherwise. When it comes to convictions, they have none at all.

cohenr@washpost.com


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